Incorporating The Music Fix
8th December 2011 10:30:00
Posted by Gary K

The Music Fix Albums of 2011

Let’s hear it for the girls. As if we were ever in any doubt, the nigh on impossible task of hacking the best part of 800 albums (a TMF record) down to 30, confirmed what we’d suspected all along: the female of the species took 2011 by storm. The biggest seller of the year by some distance (Adele – we weren’t convinced) and the biggest character of the year (Lady Gaga – we tried, but again…) didn’t distract us from adding our own thumbs up to one of the most lauded albums of the year. When PJ Harvey waltzed off with her second Mercury Prize, it went some way towards reminding us, as if we needed reminding, that drippy lads peddling skinny jeans and jangly bar chords is, shockingly, still a problem but one, if we work together, we can help stamp out.

And us blokes, how did we do? Well, we’re not suggesting the weaker sex flopped entirely. We’d like to think our top 30 shows - via flamboyant popsters, electro-auteurs or genre-busting metallers - we’re working hard to keep up. And in other news? Well, a bunch of scallies from Manchester (and Stoke) did a few low key gigs that proved reasonably popular, and another bunch of scallies from Manchester talked about doing something similar next year but, ultimately, the men folk could do little to distract attention away from the obvious. Whether assaulting the charts or dominating the underground with their crazed, literate, artful ambition, girls > boys. We weren’t complaining. Apologies for talking over the heads of the female minority at TMF Towers (and, by the way, get in touch if you feel you can help us restore the balance) but us boys, we know our place.

Of course, no look back at the highs of 2011 would be complete without acknowledging the lows and, most notably, the loss of the glorious, fractured talent of Amy Winehouse. Less news-worthy, but equally sad, was the death of an arguably more influential figure. Poly Styrene, a prime mover from the early days of punk, was an empowering inspiration for a host of female artists who followed in her wake. Cruelly, the cancer she thought she’d beaten, returned as she released her finest work. Poly was 53, Amy a mere 27. Both had more to say but we’re left to guess now as to what that might have been. Do us a favour: delve into the list below and lend an ear to anything that appeals. We guarantee you won’t be disappointed. And, as you celebrate the festive season, raise your glass to two remarkable women and those whose dizzying talent helps keep their spirit alive.


Apparat - The Devil's Walk

Berlin-based electronic musician Sascha Ring has come a long way since his early, more traditional techno-sounding work, his sound becoming more ambient, intricate and textured. The Devil's Walk saw Apparat expand into a full band and with that came perhaps their most fully-realised vision to date. Driven by Ring's delicate vocals, the album delivers post-rock crescendos, skittering beats and euphoric drones, colliding in impressive synchronicity. Some electronic purists may spurn this album. More fool them. (Freddy Palmer)

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Arctic Monkeys - Suck It And See

Suck It And See saw Arctic Monkeys become only the second band in history to record four straight #1 debuts in the album charts. Refusing to stand still, Alex Turner and co. continued their trend for each album having a different sound; this time they dropped the heavy psychedelics of Humbug in favour of laidback, surf pop-rock and an almost timeless groove. While the singles haven't, for once, bothered the charts, a sold-out arena tour (including two nights at London's cavernous O2 Arena) proved that Arctic Monkeys are far from finished and, on the back of their finest effort to date, we can't wait to hear what they next have in store. (Ian Sandwell)

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Austra - Feel It Break

I first became aware of Austra via a video of the band performing 'Beat And The Pulse' at this year's SXSW. There's a brilliant moment where the camera shudders in time with Katie Stelmanis's unearthly vibrato and there's a sense of wonder, of doubt, even, that this music was created by mere mortals. So why, for me, is this head and shoulders above everything else this year? Well, since I loaded it into my iPod - and into my life - back in May, I've played it scores, possibly hundreds of times. So has everyone else in my family and in my house, as fresh now as it did when it was released. Run, don't walk - as they say. (Mike Hughes)

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Nicole Atkins - Mondo Amore

An arguably more mainstream approach for her second album doesn't damage Nicole Atkins' chances of making our best-of list. Much like her debut, this is quality from start to finish - challenging and dark on one hand, inviting and tempting on the other. Atkins' powerful vocals dominate each track, creating a host of standout moments. This is an unforgettable, career-defining selection, and cements her position in our annual best-of for the second time. (Colin Polonowski)

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Katy B - On A Mission

No curveball really, Katy B's dubstep-dance crossover was an assured success as soon as we heard the preview tracks. The genre-hopping mix of club beats and pop influences could, in the hands of just about anyone else, have let to a forgettable, nondescript debut but instead On A Mission appealed to both the usually sniffy critics and mainstream music fans in equal measure. A host of awards have added kudos to the album's reputation, and mark out Katy B as a new talent who is already realising her promise. (CP)

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Blood Ceremony - Living With The Ancients

The first time I heard Blood Ceremony's second album, I was convinced this Canadian bunch were British, so perfectly did they capture the essence and spirit of both 70s folk (Fairport Convention) and heavy metal (Black Sabbath.) This is a hugely dynamic work that only grows in stature over time as its various subtleties emerge, and, in the final ten minute masterpiece 'Daughter Of The Sun', we have what is easily my favourite track of the year. As Alia O'Brien's (fallen) angel voice recites deliciously dark lyrics that soar over the finest satanic prog-rock excess, it's the final confirmation that this resolutely retro band summon up a particularly timeless sense of black magick. (Dominic Hemy)

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Cowboy Junkies - Sing In My Meadow

Forget the history, past plaudits are simply un-necessary baggage. This is an album that stands alone. Sometimes we need bands to defy conventions, if only so that when we prepare to listen to a new album for the first time we retain the ability to be surprised. With Sing In My Meadow prepare to be astounded. This is the product of band that is on a creative peak and we can only look forward to the next release in their Nomad series to see where they take us next. A triumph. (James Scanlan)

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The Dears - Degeneration Street

They blogged their fifth album's gestation for the best part of a year and they announced the completion of their labours in typically emphatic style: "We are finished. We are ready. We are coming." If, after their much-vaunted emergence as agents of dark promise, displaying a cool regard for the British alternative, we'd started to fall out of love with them just slightly, maybe we'd sensed an emerging lack of confidence and direction. The trick is, when the clouds clear, to come out fighting. Clearly over a mid-life malaise that had led them away from orchestrated anthemics to bleak, bedsit electronica, 2011 saw The Dears issue an unequivocal statement of intent. With leader Murray Lightburn attacking their subsequent live shows with evangelical conviction, and Patrick Krief and Rob Benvie back in the fold, the Canadian agitators are contenders once again. (Gary Kaill)

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EMA - Past Life Martyred Saints

Erika M Anderson's schizoid debut violently resists compartmentalisation. You might as well try and attach a label to the wind. Squawling guitar work-outs ('Milkman'), a deft grasp of the epic and the poetic ('The Grey Ship') and a penchant for whispered night terrors ('Marked', 'Butterfly Knife'): Past Life Martyred Saints confirmed its creator's ambition and reach. Because she kinda looks like trouble, but is actually razor sharp and full of wry charm, she already possesses a sliver of rare enigma. See her onstage, where her louche command of both her Les Paul and her audience mark her out as one of 2011's real, emerging stars. (GK)

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Florence + The Machine - Ceremonials

Bigger and bolder than Lungs without a 'You've Got The Love' in sight, Ceremonials may require a couple of listens but delve into its rich tapestry and you'll come up with love instead of mere admiration. With treasures both luscious and impossible to resist, F+TM have forged new, opulent goth-isms that retain both their commercial - including an X Factor appearance - and critical appeal. Quite simply, there's no other act out there like them, and softening their dark charms would have robbed them of that winning uniqueness. (IS)

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Fucked Up - David Comes To Life

The punk Tommy? Certainly few others have attempted to use the form to tell a story quite like David ..., with its star-crossed lovers pitted against a backdrop of 1970s English grime and factory floor unrest. The FU sonic template remains much the same (lots and lots of guitars, softened this time round with some feminine vocals), basically kicking ass from the outset in an oft quite radio-friendly manner. Yet it's the four act story that resonates most; a grand abstract of Shakespearian dimensions that brings hope and beauty to punk rock, decades after another punk pioneer talked of the 'flowers in the dustbin.' With larger-than-life frontman Damien Abraham recently indicating his desire to tour less - while not wishing to inconvenience his bandmates - expect yet more conceptual hi-jinks from this boundary-defying outfit. (Douglas Baptie)

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Tim Hecker - Ravedeath, 1972

Canadian sound artist and all-round electronic whizz kid Tim Hecker had always gleamed brightly on the periphery of experimental electronica, but with this year's Ravedeath, 1972 he finally lifted his sound to a level of beauty that was difficult to ignore. With the help of Icelandic-native Ben Frost, Hecker recorded a church organ, transforming the results into textured and multi-layered compositions that succeed in creating a wholly unique sonic journey. The result verges on the monumental. (FP)

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Jessie J - Who Are You

On planet pop, 2011 has very much been Jessica Cornish's year - with even a foot injury failing to derail the Jessie J juggernaut. The Brit School production line continues to infuriate as much as delight and if us cooler-than-thou types worked hard to resist, the appeal of perfect pop ensured we caved: singles 'Price Tag' and 'Nobody's Perfect' were impossible to resist. A combination of impressive live performances and continued chart success suggest she'll be one of pop's biggest stars for some time to come. (CP)

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Kasabian - Velociraptor!

Once the heady enthusiasm wears off and cold hard reason barges in you may start to wonder if that maximum score was overly generous. Detractors may scoff but they are running out of ammo, Kasabian cementing their position as Britain's premier exponents of arena-sized anthems and psych-infused explorations, all tempered by the occasional heartfelt ballad. Next summer may belong to The Stone Roses, but Kasabian are odds-on favourites to win the season-long battle for the Peoples' Champions crown, Velociraptor! their not-so-secret weapon. (Olivia Schaff)

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Machine Head - Unto The Locust

The release of a new Machine Head album has become something to look forward to, and the San Francisco thrashers did not disappoint in 2011. Unto The Locust is yet another lesson is pure unadulterated aggression, power and ferocity, all wrapped up in expertly crafted songs that are heavier - and faster - than the proverbial bullet train. A truly addictive album, it had me hooked on the massive choruses, hypnotic leads and adrenaline-pumping riffs from the outset. In what has been a strong year for heavy metal, they have managed to outclass and outweigh everyone. Again. (DH)

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Laura Marling - A Creature I Don't Know

Laura Marling has hardly put a foot wrong since her arrival with debut album Alas I Cannot Swim in 2008 but A Creature I Don't Know is her most impressive work with her strongest compositions to date. Here, the passion hinted at previously is given full rein and her elegant lyricism and beautiful arrangements (the title track explodes into a stunning distortion-fuelled denouement that took many by surprise) truly shine. This is a remarkable testament from one of the most compelling artists in music today. (OS)

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J Mascis - Several Shades Of Why

For the first work released under his own name, Dinosaur Jr‘s J.Mascis produced an album of gentle beauty, where acoustic guitar ruled over the urge to turn everything up to 11. There may be a couple of signature guitar wig outs but they fit the songs beautifully and do little to detract from a collection that matches anything in Mascis's long and storied career. Several Shades of Why is a perfect reminder that sometimes less really can be more. (Greg Belton)

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Mastodon - The Hunter

The fifth album from the Atlanta-based metallers was, in heavy music circles, one of the year's most anticipated releases - and it sure as hell didn't disappoint. Still parading the prog-rock tendencies exhibited on previous full-length Crack The Skye, they capitalised on those and other strengths, whether it be the sludgy grooves or the band's technical ferocity. They even managed to bag themselves a spot on the usually metal-free Later...With Jools Holland show, and in doing so showed the British public why they remain one of the most revered metal acts around. (FP)

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PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

A career of chameleon-like stylistic changes has seen PJ Harvey’s popularity rise and fall like the tides but with Let England Shake she took probably the biggest risk of her career with an album that was as bold, stark and uncompromising as any I can recall. Lavished with praise across the board and a Mercury prize - just reward for an album that would have stood out from the pack in any year. What Polly does next is anyone’s guess but, until then, Let England Shake will serve as a reminder of the unique vision of one of Britain’s most unpredictable artists. (GB)

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Summer Camp - Welcome To Condale

A blast of sunshine upon its release this Halloween, Welcome to Condale flipped the bird at Katy P and introduced listeners to their new favourite teenage dream. Combining the talents of folktronica bard Jeremy Warmsley and music journo turned frontwoman Elizabeth Sankey, the duo's first full-length album lived up to the promise of earlier EPs and live shows by fully embracing the love-drunk angst of youth, channelling Molly Ringwald circa 1985 and creating perfect pop to soundtrack your sweet sixteen dreams. (Luke McNaney)

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Trumpets of Death - Teeth + Teeth = Teeths

Unlikely to feature on many best-of lists, the debut from Leeds-based folk/noise/jazz-ers Trumpets of Death is a startling and ferociously challenging work. Almost impenetrable on first listen, it opens up to reveal a sinister and enthralling world. Perhaps the most surprising album of the year, it finds its way to your very soul. It's that rare beast - an album that gets better with every listen. (GB)

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Sarabeth Tucek - Get Well Soon

A confession: when the first few press releases for Sarabeth Tucek landed on the mat, we were automatically filing them with all the hipster nu-prog stuff that life is just too short to have to deal with. Thankfully, we have smarter colleagues who gently pointed out that Sarabeth was actually a lady and it was 'Sarabeth', like from The Waltons or something - and not some sub-Tolkien Warhammer tribute. Ahem. Talking of life's brevity, April's Get Well Soon was Tucek's traffic-stopping chronicle of familial grief that lifted the grey shroud of personal loss to expose the kind of adult truths that only become apparent when it is far too late. Like Karen Carpenter fronting Crazy Horse (i.e. basically the greatest idea of all time), if we were to come over all crass and actually rank these things, Get Well Soon would leave most, if not all, of the competition in the rear-view. (DB)

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Twilight Singers - Dynamite Steps

Greg Dulli has made a career out of classic rock ‘n’ roll with a soul tinged edge. Now, after a few years of collaborations and guest appearances, he's back doing what he does best. The latest Twilight Singers album is a sinister, threatening beast that displays Dulli’s uncanny knack for producing supremely dark, yet uplifting, rock that deserves to be heard by a far bigger audience. One of the grunge era's great survivors, Dynamite Steps comfirms his continued relevance - and brilliance. (GB)

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Twin Sister - In Heaven

Forgive me the guilty pleasure of calling In Heaven heavenly, but let me assure you the guilt stops there. Twin Sister's first full-length album is synth-pop pulled into all sorts of pleasing sonic shapes, resulting in a contender for album of the year and a record that is by turns warm, weird and often rather lovely. It's an eclectic listen but Andrea Estella's central performance as breathy indie sweetheart/noir-vamp holds it all together. Celestial cool. (LM)

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We Were Promised Jetpacks - In The Pit Of The Stomach
It's not often that we're surprised in this business, but when we popped We Were Promised Jetpacks' sophomore effort into our stereo, we were practically open-mouthed. We knew they had it in them, we just never knew that so early in their career they could deliver an album that isn't just enjoyable, but is exciting, bursting with ideas and a genuine thrill. Go out and buy it: your ears will thank you for it. (IS)

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Wild Beasts - Smother

Smother, especially for new-comers to the band, is a bit of a slow burner. It is odd, quirky, eccentric. It slithers up from behind and slowly coils itself around. Lit by Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming's vocal acrobatics, the guitars and keyboards lurk in the shadows. Initially, you're struck by its weirdness but then, after a few more listens, you realise that you are deeply, madly in love. (OS)

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Wild Flag – Wild Flag

Few artists succeed second time around, so while Wild Flag have a pedigree, quality was never a given. This eponymous debut from various north-west US underground luminaries positively reeks of place and history, as Carrie Brownstein brings her Sleater-Kinney guitar lines to a sound with its roots deep in organ-driven, frat-party garage and trailer park 70s hard rock. With trad indie guitar music going through one of its occasional slumps, expect next year's UK shows to be a rare opportunity to optimistically expect both dancing and a-rockin'. (DB)

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Winged Victory for the Sullen – Winged Victory for the Sullen

Building on a bedrock of piano and strings WVFTS ebb and flow, transporting the listener somewhere new, somewhere different. There’s an undertone of sorrow and introspection but this isn’t Now That's What I Call A Soundtrack To Manic Depression Vol 367. Labelling it thus would belittle its presence, its beauty. Where many struggle to do so, WVFTS have pushed through the post-rock barriers and claimed territory, artistic value, on their own terms. Disconnected from so many of modern music's stylings, here's an album that hints at future, classic value and reputation. (JS)

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Patrick Wolf – Lupercalia

Does anyone still read sonnets? More to the point, are there any poets still writing sonnets? No matter, because multi-instrumentalist troubadour Patrick Wolf returned this year with an album full of lush love songs that really put a smile on the face and a warm, fuzzy feeling everywhere else. Combining lush orchestration with electronic elements is nothing new for Wolf, but here he followed 2009's maudlin The Bachelor with a collection of songs that are shamelessly, heart-on-sleeve optimistic without losing their musical credibility. Named after an ancient festival of fertility, Lupercalia is a soundtrack to young and old love and sure to inspire hope in romantic cynics everywhere. (LM)

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Zola Jesus - Conatus

Nika Danilova's latests arrived aglow with an almost commercial sheen. If her gothic atmospherics had previously appeared off-puttingly chill, Conatus brought discipline to the methodology (minimal beats, strings, acoustic elements, that voice up-rooting trees at the dead centre of the mix) and proffered thrilling melodics. Yes, it's a dark journey but it's far from bleak, and subtle tonal variation ensures the noir soundscapes maintain their grip. Curious, still ? Be brave. Step off the path. Turn out the lights. (GK)

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